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The Butterfly Girl

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Rina had learned many things since the last time she'd run away, the price of getting caught not the least of those. This time, she ran in the morning, just after her master left. This time, she didn't head for the market or anywhere else near the port, but uphill into the warren of side streets and blind alleys. This time, she knew the language, and she had a purse of stolen coins, another of food, and a small, sharp knife.

She stood out, she knew–a pale red-haired girl in a city that shaded from umber to coal–but hoped that one dirt-smeared street rat would look much like another to anyone not really looking. Now she ran soundlessly up the winding streets, stone under her bare feet still cool from the night, and looked for a place to hole up. Better somewhere high, somewhere with a view of the harbour, to wait until her master's ship sailed; better still a place where she could steal a little food to pad out her supply.

This was an inside-out city, like so many her master visited, with high, smooth stone walls and no windows, closed wooden doors wedged into corners, and half the streets themselves gated off, though these now lay open for the morning. As she climbed, the carving on and around the doors grew more intricate, and the walls higher, but the streets no wider. She'd miss the avenues of her home if they didn't come with worse memories than this.

Rina's breath burned in her chest, and she made herself slow to a purposeful trot. The sun hadn't risen past the roofs, but already she could feel the start of the heat. She needed to be under cover before the heat of mid-morning, let alone noon.

Ahead, a ladder wedged into a narrow passage between buildings and led high up to roof level. Rina's eyes flicked across the street, but she couldn't see anyone watching it.. She didn't break out of her jog but sprang onto the ladder and scrambled up and through a gap in the tile roof above. From there she dropped down through the rafters and back out of sight.

Rina froze, listening with her whole body. She could hear no sound beyond the distant calls of a water boy, certainly no cries of alarm inside or out of the house. The only light was the low beam sliding through the slates and a slim line along the inner eaves. Below her, loose planks divided the space under the roof from the rooms below. She inhaled and smelled cedar and dry heat, and something sweet and sharp.

A clatter on the tiles made her jump, but it was just the workman back again, and soon first one fresh tile than another filled the gap, leaving her in darkness and silence. When the workman left, Rina scooted back into the north corner of the roof, curled up on the bare boards, folded shawl for a pillow. As she settled into sleep, a pleased little thought flitted across her mind: See if he can find me here.

When she woke, the light along the eaves had brightened, and the little room had grown unbearably stuffy and hot. Full afternoon sun must be hitting dark roof tiles that sloped down towards the courtyard to the west. Rina sighed and stripped out of her dress, moving carefully so as not to disturb the planking. Then she ate a little and lay flat on her back, drifting off again. It was too hot to do anything else, so she would sleep the day out.

The chill of the evening woke her again some time after nightfall. She put her dress back on and followed her memories of the room to shift a board and drop down into a dark chamber below.

She landed as carefully as she could, then stayed perfectly still, listening for the sounds of breathing, but the room was silent and empty. As she felt her way out, she brushed into a row of heavy stone jars, and another of loaded baskets. Stout shelves would make it easy enough to climb back up. The door was latched on the outside, but she slid her knife through the gap and it opened easily enough.

From there she crept along the hallway and down into the courtyard, making off with two pots, one full of water, and one with a lid, and a handful of dates that had been drying on the stones. She wanted to pluck the fruit of the sweet-scented orange trees that grew along the north wall, but didn't take the risk; her pots rattling as she climbed back up under the roof was more than enough of a scare for the night.

The roof sloped inward, high on the side the faced the street, and low along the courtyard to send rain from the gutters into the cistern. Each side around the courtyard was perhaps ten of her small paces across and fifty long. Rina had realised that with the roof fixed and no gap in the stone walls, her plans for a view of the harbour wouldn't work. She had no idea if her master's ship was still there or not. All she could do was wait as long as she thought he'd last, and hope for the best.

It wasn't a strategy that fit well with her. She and hope hadn't been on speaking terms for some time.

She waited another day, napping between snacks, and trying not to move, and that night she didn't go out, but sat with her legs pulled up against her and her shawl around her shoulders and thought of every place she'd go once she got out of here, once she was free to go where she liked. She'd start for Jeddah first, knowing her master was headed east, then north overland, all the way home. Wherever that was.

The scrape of boards woke her out of a drifting sleep and a dream of herself on a throne, jewel bedecked, with a goblet of sweet juice in her hand.

Rina had her knife in her hand before she even thought of curling under the shawl and pretending to be a pile of rags. Too late. She crouched, back to the wall and bared her teeth. It was good she was small. It would give her an edge in this cramped space.

First a head, then shoulders popped up through the same loose board she'd used two nights before, backlit at first, then illuminated by the lantern that followed: a brown face, like the darkest people of this city, with a broad nose and high cheekbones and paint around the eyes that caught in the candlelight. A basket of oranges thumped down before the rest of the lithe body pulled itself up and kicked the board back in place.

Rina tried not to breathe. The lantern's candle illuminated only the circle around the other figure, the other girl, she saw now, but it was only a few paces to Rina's corner. She couldn't possibly have long. The girl's eyes would surely adjust, or the lantern's light would gleam off Rina's eyes or knife. She wanted to hiss and spit and attack, but she didn't think she could kill someone before they screamed. Rina's knowledge of killing was, so far, theoretical.

The other girl shook her head, tossing a cascade of oiled and beaded braids over her shoulder. She made enough noise to wake the house, but now that she was up here, she didn't seem concerned. Instead, she knelt on the boards, arranged her silken skirts around her, and pulled the basket to her. As she leaned in, a few braids still fell forward, their beads catching the light, and Rina saw that each one had the outline of a turquoise butterfly painted on it. Despite herself, she edged forward a little. She could smell the girl, and she was like the house, only more so, sweet and sharp at the same time, like resin. Rina hadn't realised that people could smell so good.

The girl selected an orange, turning it in the lantern light before taking it between her slender hands and rolling it briskly until the whole room was full of its scent.

She looked up, meeting Rina's eyes dead on, and held out the orange. "If you tell me how you got in, I'll give you this." She spoke Arabic with a wide, rolling accent that drew out the soft sounds and smoothed the hard.

"What if I cut you with my knife and take the whole basket?" Rina asked, swallowing and hoping her face didn't show how fast her heart was beating.

The girl shrugged, apparently unconcerned. "My father would kill you."

"Did your father send you?" Why send a girl when you could send a bigger man up with a sword, or just rip out the ceiling until Rina fell out into your arms?

"No," The other girl said. "I saw you in the night, stealing our water."

So her father didn't know? Rina didn't want to ask why she didn't tell him. Instead, she said, "The worker left a hole in the roof, and a ladder to it." She held out her free hand, low to the ground. "You can roll the orange to me now."

To her surprise, she did. Rina caught it and stuffed it in her food bag, never taking her eyes off the girl.

"My name is Nala daughter of Zalelew, First Speaker of Zeila." She plucked another orange from the basket, and began to work at the rind.

"They let girls speak for the city here?" Rina demanded, needling her. She didn't like not knowing why this girl was dragging things out. It was hard to tell with her people, but she seemed about the same age as Rina, maybe a year or so older, or maybe just developing sooner, and certainly old enough to know better than to play games with an armed sneakthief.

Nala rolled her eyes. "They should. Now, what is your name?

"What does it matter?"

"It doesn't. I can keep calling you, 'that dirty little girl who climbed into my house' if you like."

Rina had been called worse. In fact, she'd rarely been called better. "What do you want?"

"I would like to know what you're doing in my house, besides stealing my water and smelling of dirt."

"Hiding, obviously." Rina was growing tired of this. "What are you doing?"

Nala shrugged again, and looked at her orange. She'd worked the skin off into a single spiral, which she put in the basket, before starting to pick bits of white pith from the skin. "Eating an orange," she said infuriatingly, and popped the first slice between her full lips.

Rina's mouth watered, but she didn't say anything. Seven years with her master had taught her the value of waiting. If she could sit out his rages, she could certainly wait for this spoiled girl's curiosity to get the better of her. Unless she called for her father. Rina shifted back on her heels a little and clutched her knife.

Nala didn't call out, but ate the whole orange, then licked the juice from her fingers before she said, "If you'd wanted water, we would have given it to you. That is the law in this city."

There were other laws in this city too, Rina knew, ones about returning slaves to their masters. "I didn't take much," she said, surprised at how defensive she sounded. She should not care what this Nala thought of her. "You could spare it." They could water trees.

"That is not the point."

"What do you want?" Rina asked again.

"I want to know who you are."

"No one," Rina said. "I'm no one who matters. I didn't take anything you couldn't spare, and I won't stay long." She had been toying with the idea of robbing the house before she left, but never mind that. She had the little purse of money, that would get her by for a few days.

"Just until your master stops looking?" Nala asked, and oh, she must have known all along.

"I don't belong to anyone," Rina snapped.

"My father tells me that he's offering a necklace of carved ivory to the man who returns you," Nala told her, ignoring the lie.

Rina bit her lip. That was a lot. She hadn't realised that he would want her back quite that badly. Her breath caught. Maybe he wouldn't sail after all. How long could she hide from him? "And you'd like such a necklace?"

"If I did, my father would buy one for me."

How lovely for her. "He'd buy you a slave too?"

Nala didn't say anything for a moment, seeming to take the question seriously. "I don't want a slave," she said at last.

"What do you want?" It was the third time Rina had asked that, and she didn't expect that she'd get a better answer this time.

But she did. Nala sat straighter, setting her hands on her knees and met Rina's eyes. "You ran away; I want to know how."

Rina narrowed her eyes, trying to tell if Nala was making fun of her, but she didn't seem to be. She was staring at Rina with dark eyes that seemed almost guileless, or would have if they weren't so clearly worried, and not about the knife in Rina's hand. She hadn't looked at it once. It seemed as though a thief living in the ceiling was the least of Nala daughter of the First Speaker of the Zeila's worries.

"You have to plan ahead," she said eventually.

Nala nodded, lips pressed tight, but her eyes gleaming. "That is good. I am good at planning, but you will help me."

Rina snorted. Everything about this girl told her that she was used to getting her way, no questions asked. "Why would I do that?" she demanded. Why Nala wanted to leave remained unasked. Her father had probably denied her a horse or some such, and now she was flying on spite.

"Because I will help you too."

"Ha. How?"

Nala opened her mouth to answer but a woman's voice echoed up through the courtyard, calling her name. "I must go," she said, shuffling aside to move the board again. "Think about how to escape. We both need to get out of the city."

Rina wanted to promise to do just the opposite, but Nala slid back through the gap with surprising suppleness for a spoiled city girl, and the board settled down behind her before Rina could even begin to think of all the things that were wrong with that idea.

The basket of oranges remained. Rina scooted over to it and emptied it into her sack before settling back against the wall to consider what to do next.

It was just coming dawn after her second night here. She'd thought earlier that three or four days would be enough to wait out her master, but that necklace shook her, assuming Nala had told her the truth, and when exactly had she started assuming that? The details seemed true, however; Rina had seen her master with a necklace like that, and knew it was worth three times what he'd paid for her in the first place. Was she worth enough to him to stay until the next ship? How long could she last up here?

And what if Nala gave her up to her father, or even Rina's master? Maybe she'd wanted the reward more than she'd said, or wanted to trade for passage away from Zeila. For that matter, Nala could easily pay for passage on a ship with just the beads in her hair, so why did she need Rina's help? There must be something dangerous involved, something more than just running away.

Rina pulled an orange from the sack and dug her short nails into the rind. Sweet oil sprayed across her palm, reminding her of Nala's careful plying of skin from flesh. She hadn't seemed to get those long, graceful hands dirty. How long would she last on the run? Last time Rina had run, she'd managed three days on the streets before her master had found her and dragged her back with him. It hadn't been easy, and Rina was used to living rough.

Nala must be looking for a protector, but again, why? Protected from what? And why would this father, this killer of dirty girls in the ceiling and buyer of fine ivory necklaces, not protect her. It was a father's role, Rina had heard, though she'd yet to see any proof of it. Perhaps this Zalelew was like Rina's own father, ready to sell his daughter away.

Finishing with the rind, Rina separated the orange into sections, lining them up on her shawl, and picked the smallest to try first. The juice filled her mouth, even sweeter than she'd imagined.

She didn't want to wait up here not knowing any answers, but she couldn't see a way out until nightfall, and even then, she realised, with the ladder gone, getting out of the house would be a challenge. The doors in such places shut against the night, and even a girl as small as she would catch attention in crossing the courtyard when the house was awake. It would be easier with Nala's help. Nala could also ask her father if one ship or another had left for Broach, or if a man was still offering a reward for a small pale-skinned girl with red hair.

Spitting a seed onto the floor, Rina swore quietly. She was not considering Nala's offer. She was not.

Not without knowing a good deal more.

Rina waited another day before Nala returned, the sun coming around to overheat the roof, and then sliding down to a orange line against the eaves and fading to night.

Nala had her hair wrapped this time, braids coiled under a cloth of blue and gold butterflies, which did little to hide her, but did muffle the click of beads. She wore a long dress of the same pattern with a skirt so narrow that she had to hike it up past her knees as she climbed through the boards. Her skin was oiled too, not even her knees showing ashy, and still she smelled so sweet. She caught her skirts on a splinter on the way through and paused to work it free, easing the wood away rather than tearing it loose.

"You won't get far dressed like that." Rina noted.

Nala sucked her teeth. "People see me in this dress, and they know who my father is. They know I am protected."

Or owned, Rina supposed, like a slave collar, though she hadn't worn one of those in years. "If your father is so powerful, why do you want to leave Zeila?" Rina asked.

Nala dropped her gaze to focus on the bowl she'd set in front of her, a bowl that smelled like Rina's best idea of paradise. "He can't protect me from everything."

That was no good. "I can't help you run if you won't tell me what's chasing you," Rina said, then bit the inside of her cheek so hard she could taste blood. That had sounded like she'd already agreed to help Nala. Agreed before she had any idea what was going on. Now Nala would think she was stupid. "If," she repeated for emphasis.

"It doesn't matter," Nala said. "Once I'm in Baghdad, I will be safe. I can stay at the house of my aunt, and she will not send me anywhere I don't want to go."

Rina wondered if that was true, but it didn't especially matter. Baghdad was over a month away, and that was when the winds were with them as far as Basra. And going on knowledge so slim, she doubted they would make it out of Zeila.

"So what?" She asked. "You have a rich aunt as well as a rich father. That just means they'll send more men to find you and bring you home." She smiled, showing teeth. "Perhaps your father will put up a necklace as a reward to the one who catches you, and right back here you'll be. Like you never left." As if that was so bad. If Rina had such a house, she couldn't imagine running from it. She'd sit under the shade trees and eat oranges until she was too fat to stand.

"I'm worth more than a necklace," Nala said, indignant, "More than a little runaway slave too, no matter how exotic she looks." She crumpled the cloth covering the bowl between her hands, slowly twisting it as though wringing its neck. When it wouldn't twist any more, she looked down, and, seeming to realise what she was giving away, deliberately smoothed it across her knees and draped it back over the bowl. "But it is no matter. My father will not pursue me, and I have other protections against he that will."

Something slid into place in Rina's mind, like oars fitting into a lock. Nala was running from a man, probably a marriage. He, she had said. She didn't like whoever He was, and furthermore believed that her beloved father cared enough for her not to drag her back by the hair and make her marry her intended. Rina expected that Nala would find disappointment there at least. Whatever this marriage was, it must be worth a lot. She folded her arms and said, "I don't think I will help you."

"Not even for this?" Nala asked, and pushed the bowl toward her. It was full of fried sorghum dumplings and tender roasted goat. Rina hadn't even smelled something so good in years.

Her eyes flicked down to the bowl and then back up to meet Nala's. She remembered an old story one of the crew had told her, about a boy who gives away his inheritance for a bowl of stew. "I am not that stupid."

Nala shrugged a single shoulder, ignoring Rina's replying glare. "I didn't say you were."


"If you help me so that you could eat like this every night."

Rina forced herself to move casually as she selected a dumpling and popped it into her mouth. The rich flavours made her close her eyes, but only for a second. "Your aunt in Baghdad must feed her slaves well."

"That is not what I mean," Nala snapped. "I would pay you, you little idiot, enough to set up for yourself."

"Ha." She really did think Rina was stupid.

Nala spread her hands, palms up, and said, "Listen," she said. "Once I read a book of stories from far away. Perhaps they came from your land. They were written by a man who had once been a slave, but had earned enough to buy his freedom."

"That does sound like a story," Rina said, but shushed when Nala held up a hand, one finger extended.

"In this book," she continued, "there was a story of a hungry wolf and a fat dog. The dog told the wolf it could have as much food as it liked, and a warm place to sleep, but the wolf saw the mark of the collar around its neck, saw where it had been chained, and fled back into the woods." Nala's lips turned up, but it wasn't a smile, more a grimace of acknowledgement. "I never understood what it meant before, but now," she paused, then said, "If it were only wearing a collar, I would do what I must."

"I don't see much wolf in you," Rina said honestly, and had to swallow twice to get her food down. Her throat felt so tight her chest hurt.

"Perhaps I will learn."

Rina doubted that. "I couldn't learn to be a dog." Rather, she had already learned, and had decided that it didn't suit her.

"That is not what I was saying."

"Whatever." Rina bent to pick the last of the goat out of the dumplings, tired of the conversation. "If you don't want to tell me, then don't. But we won't get to Basra let alone Baghdad."

"You were planning to," Nala said. Rina had never told her that, but Rina supposed it was an easy guess.

"I was going to stow away. You'd be terrible at that." She licked the juice from her fingers before wiping them on the cloth and pushing the bowl back to Nala. "Two girls can't travel together."

Nala narrowed her eyes, looking Rina up and down, but Rina shook her head. "No," she said, "It wouldn't work. I don't look like boy." She'd tried that too, once.

The twist Nala's mouth indicated that she thought that was debatable, but she didn't press, saying only, "I suppose you are too beautiful for a boy. I will think about it." She gathered the bowl and cloth and started to pry up the board. Then, surprising Rina, whose thoughts were still caught on the idea that perfect, gorgeous Nala thought she was beautiful, she added, "And I will ask my father if your master's ship is still in port."

Then she vanished back into the house below.

Rina sighed. What she should do was wait until she found that out and then cut and run, leaving Nala where she was. So she had to marry someone of her father's choice, what of it? Many girls did. It really wasn't any of Rina's affair, and Nala would only slow her down.

And yet, Rina thought again of the story of the hungry wolf and the dog whose fur was worn away from the collar around its throat. She couldn't bear the thought of Nala in chains, or worse. "If it were just the collar," she'd said, and then fallen silent, and Rina's heart had caught just then, entirely against her will.

As she slept, she dreamed of what Nala's hands might feel like, with their skin so soft and smooth, of what her skin would smell like if Rina pressed her face against it. She woke in the middle of the night with a satisfied glow of warmth in her stomach, and curled around the feeling, pulling her shawl more tightly around here.

Nala came in the morning before dawn, as she had that first time. She could get away then, she said, when just the cook was up warming the ovens, and the doors to the house were not yet open. She brought water and fruit or cold meat from the night before.

Rina brought a new plan. "What if," she asked, "What if you wore a loose robe and a veil and shawls, all grey like a widow?"

"I could stoop over and shuffle my feet," Nala agreed, picking up the idea immediately, "And make my voice sound like Father's auntie. You could be my servant." She frowned. "We would have to find you a new dress."

Rina, of course, objected, though she hadn't thought of anything better, but Nala said that she could hardly go as her granddaughter. Rina would have countered that she could be the widow, and Nala could be the servant, but the notion was too ridiculous to even bother mentioning.

"It's almost the new year," Nala said, "We can join the pilgrims returning from Mecca, hide among them."

It scared Rina to think that that sounded like a workable plan. It was actually better than stowing away, or safer at least, and again she found herself waffling. She didn't want this new risk. She didn't want anyone depending on her but herself, especially not some princess who didn't have a clue how harsh the world could be.

Nala either didn't notice her frown, or was pretending not to notice. She rolled an orange between her hands as she had that first morning and said, far too casually, "My father tells me that your ship is still in port, but is to sail with the noon tide tomorrow."

Rina had lost track of the moon in here, but when she counted back that tide made sense. "How long until the pilgrims begin to arrive?" she asked.

"Ten days? Maybe less. But I have already almost gotten ready. There are precautions I must take. We must not be followed."

"No," Rina said. She agreed there, but still felt that whatever might be following Nala was more serious than a jilted fiancé or an angry father. More serious, perhaps, than a slave owner out for blood. "What precautions?"

Nala hesitated, eyes falling the the orange still unopened in her hands.

"Hey!" Rina said, her voice rising past the usual whisper they usually conversed in. "If I help you," if, she still said. Always if, "I'm risking my neck just as much as you are." More. they wouldn't kill Nala. "What precautions?"

"There is magic still," Nala admitted, eyes still downcast. "My fa–" she broke off, then corrected herself, "many in this city follow the old gods of trees and water, not this new Allah. I know a woman who can make a magic that we can hide under like a cloak."

"Hide from what?" Rina pressed, but Nala shook her head and would say no more. She promised to return as she could, but Rina did not see her that evening, nor the morning after, except in her dreams, that was.

As Rina watched the light shift on her fifth day under the roof, she wondered what her master was thinking. His ship would be leaving any time now. Would he be on it? He couldn't possibly set aside his entire trip, all his trade goods, just for her. When night fell, his sails would have sunk out of sight, and Rina would be free for the first time since her parents had traded her away for a sack of silver coins. Free to do anything she wanted.

She couldn't begin to imagine what she would do with that. Other than survive, obviously. Survive, and travel north as she'd planned. With Nala? She rolled the thought around in her mind, chewing absently on her lip. Yes. With Nala. It was a good plan, and if she made enough money off of it to get back north and home, so much the better.

Rina only heard the running feet seconds before the floorboards flew up and Nala followed them, a tempest of swirling skirts and beads clicking in her hair. "We must go!" she said. "We must go now!"

"But," Rina started to say but Nala flung herself forward to catch her wrist. Her other hand clutched the corpse of a turquoise butterfly, its wings the same colour as the beads in her hair.

"We have no time." She dragged Rina forward, barely giving her enough time to grab her sack of food. "He is coming. I thought he would wait for my birthday, for the wedding feast, but he is coming today." She flung the butterfly on the boards between them, as though Rina would know what it meant.

For one, long moment, Rina considered resisting. She could plant her feet on the edge of the planks and hold. Nala wouldn't persist, not with the fear in her eyes. She would let go and flee on her own, leaving Rina to her original plan.

Instead, Rina let herself be dragged down through into the storage room below, down another set of stairs and out into the courtyard. There they struck the midday heat like a wall, and Rina had to gasp for breath, clinging to the doorway.

Nala turned, snapping, "Come on! We have no time." Only then did Rina realise that Nala already wore a widow's loose grey robes, her veil looped around her neck, and that she had a carved wooden box tucked under one arm. She had made ready.

At the sound of Nala's voice, the whole household turned as one, from the woman drawing water from the cistern to the girl grinding nuts in the shade to the pair of boys sorting the sweet-sharp resin that always scented the whole house. They all turned, but they all seemed frozen in place.

Nala didn't hesitate, but pulled Rina through the open doors at the entrance to the courtyard. From there, the hall jagged sideways between the inner and outer walls of the house before turning again to the doors to the street. Those doors were closed, and a tall man with a grave face stood in front of them, his arms folded.

"Father!" Nala said, and Rina had to grab the corner to keep from sliding into her as they both came to a halt. Nala dropped her wrist and stepped in front of her. She was taller than Rina. Much taller than Rina had thought.

"Daughter," the man said. "You are in a great hurry for such a hot part of the day."

"You know why." She too folded her arms, and Rina didn't think Nala even noticed how perfectly she was imitating her father.

Zalelew frowned, and Rina narrowed her eyes. He didn't look angry, at least not dangerously so, but he was worried and maybe afraid. Who was this man to whom he had promised his daughter? Why was he arriving early, before the house could be ready for the wedding feast? Nala's father was looking at her, she realised, and his frown had deepened.

"And who is this, Daughter?"

Nala huffed out a breath. "She's going to help me. We're going somewhere we'll be safe. Somewhere he can't reach us."

Zalelew turned back to Nala, who stood shoulder's square half in front of Rina. "This is the runaway you've been asking about. You would trust a slave girl, a foreigner to protect you from death?"

That was a fair point, but Rina still bridled and opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again when Nala said, "She has promised to do what you will not."

"But will she keep her promise?" He reached into his robes and Rina flinched, but all he had in his hand was a small goat-skin bag. Its contents clinked as he held it up. "Take this, girl. Take this and leave this place. My household is not your concern." He stepped aside from the door and pushed it ajar with his foot, enough for Rina to twist by, but not so much that he couldn't stop her or Nala if he wished.

Rina darted forward, snatching the bag from him, and found no resistance, no trick to it. If she took three steps more, she would be out the door and free. Her master was gone, and this had to be enough money so that she wouldn't even have to steal for months. She could buy an apprenticeship or a marriage, or pay passage home without even having to stow away. Combined with her own small store, she might even be able to stretch to both. She could eat meat every night, as Nala had said.

As Nala had said.

She hesitated, turning to look up at the tall man beside her. "What will happen to Nala?" she asked.

It was Nala who answered, voice unwavering, and without looking Rina knew she held her head high and her eyes were free of tears. "I am promised to marry Death. He is coming for me at the first sighting of the moon."

Rina didn't think that was metaphorical. Nala was to die, probably tonight, and her father was doing nothing to stop it.

"The people of this city made a promise," Zalelew said, and it was his voice that shook.

"You promised for me. I did not agree." Rina turned, looking at Nala, at how she stood all alone in the passageway, her hands now balled into fists at her sides, her widow's robes falling about her. She met her father's eyes, unflinching, and she herself looked like one of her gods of trees and water. "I do not wish to die, Father."

Rina had stood here once; she'd thought her parents had been with her, but in truth she'd been all alone. No one had stood for the little girl when the people meant to love her and look after her had traded her away instead. She'd been alone since.

Sighing, Rina stuffed the purse into her sack and stepped back into the hallway to hold out her hand to Nala. "Come on," she said. "We don't have much time."

Nala's hand when it took hers was soft from leisure and cold with fear. She stepped forward so that their arms brushed, and tipped her head back to meet Zalelew's eyes. "You must let us go, Father," she said. "Please."

"I know how to get away, and how to survive," Rina said, squeezing Nala's hand even more tightly. "I will teach her."

Zalelew took a breath and hesitated. Rina bit her lip. He would not let them go. Whatever he'd gotten for that promise was worth more to him than a daughter. She twisted her hand to pull the knife from her sleeve. She didn't think she could kill so large a man, but she could hurt him enough that they could escape in the confusion. Maybe.

She tugged lightly at Nala's wrist, hoping she'd know that meant they were about to move, but Nala was still standing like a cedar, staring at her father. Rina glanced sideways at her, and was surprised to see her mouth curving into a smile.

"There's a ship leaving for Jeddah when the tide turns." Rina's head snapped around, and Zalelew was smiling too, if only slightly. "Go now. Your magic will hide you, and I," he hesitated. "I will do what I can to delay pursuit."

"Father!" Nala said. Her eyes filled with tears. Her father did not pause to wipe them away, but bent to kiss her forehead and then pushed her through the door. Rina was already pulling her along.

"Look after her," he told Rina before they vanished onto the street.

"I will."

"Father!" Nala cried again, but there were already pelting down the winding streets towards the harbour.

Rina clung to her hand as they ran together. "I've been meaning to tell you," she said. "My name is Rina."